Nate dodges the uppercut heading straight for his jaw, dropping down and swiping Valerie’s legs right out from under her. Her body hits the mat with a gentle thud; she coughs as the wind gets knocked out from her lungs. With a knee on each side of her torso and batons crossed around her neck, Nate can’t help but grin. She’d insisted on a best 2 out of 3, but knew that she was beat thirty seconds into the next round of sparring. It wasn’t hard for him to tell, but nevertheless, he considers himself lucky for the win.
“Wipe that stupid grin off your face,” she insists. She shoves him in the chest, to little effect. He climbs to his feet and offers her a hand.
“He’s being harder on you than usual,” a voice says from across the room. His voice bounces off the training facility’s concrete walls. It’s not a room you want to be in if you have something to hide, that’s for sure. “Since when do you pin your opponents, Nate?”
Nate scoffs and rounds the corner into the armory. He sets his batons in a locker and grabs his jacket, throwing it over his shoulder and slipping his arms through its sleeves. “Since always?”
Chains rattle and the garage door slams shut, followed by another voice from the far side of the space. “Tristan, you’re six-foot-four and you have a titanium spine!” Murphy says. “You’re a lot heavier than you look. Val is way shorter than Nate.”
“My dear Lane, it’s technically an alloy. Not pure titanium.” Murphy scoffs at the use of his first, or rather, middle name. He laughs and adds, “you know, this thing has been in my body for years and I still hardly know anything about it.”
When Nate emerges from the armory, it’s not long before he’s forced to a stop by Valerie’s iron grip. In her left arm, Nate’s wrist-- pinned tight against his back. In her right, Nate’s head in a headlock.
“Height has nothing to do with it. You’re in over your head, Anastasio,” she says.
“Technically, you’re in over my head, Rivera.” He manages a chuckle that’s half humored, half nervous. His win against her was purely luck; she’s been an agent for almost twice as long as he has. Her bionic forearms certainly don’t help his cause, considering he lacks any cybernetic enhancements. As someone working for the Goddard Institute of Cybernetics, agents like him are few and far between. Besting his colleagues in combat isn’t a priority, being strong enough to protect the public is-- even if the former gives him a nice ego boost. Val gives him a sinister smile before letting him go.
“Could the two boyfriends on the far side of the room come and help me roll up this mat?” Nate asks, rubbing the sore spot where Val’s cold, metal arm dug into his back. Tristan and Murphy sneer at the word. What started as a joke turned into a bet between Nate and Val on who would confess first. If either of the boys knew about it, Tristan would not hesitate to use that titanium alloy strength of his and fold Nate into a pretzel.
With a few hefty shoves, the sparring mat is moved to a coiled, upright position against the back wall. Nate flips a few brunette strands of hair away from his face with one, swift toss. He likes it long, but it’s reached a point of hindering his ability to see. Another reason that his win was purely luck. Murphy wipes the sweat from the back of his neck and trails the hand up and over his buzzed hair.
The squeaky handle of a door, followed by its latch clicking into place, comes from the wall just ahead of the agents. “Working late, are we?”
The coarse, yet motherly voice would be recognizable to any Goddard agent from a mile away. General Morales, still in her black uniform with its gray accents, surveys the room and admires a job well done. Nate, Val, Tristan and Murphy stand at attention instinctually. “At ease, my friends,” she says. “Thank you for cleaning up.”
Snatching her backpack from a cubby just outside the armory, Val pulls off her utility belt and stuffs it in. “Those two were doing some training, anyway,” Tristan explains, gesturing to his left. “You know how Agent Anastasio is.”
It was Val’s idea, Nate mouths.
“And how would that be, Agent Kauri? Strong-willed?” General Morales asks.
“I was thinking annoying, but sure.”
By the time Nate whips his head around, Tristan is halfway across the room. The two exchange narrow, childlike smirks that last for only two seconds before the General furrows her brow.
“Alright, boys. Save it for sparring practice.” She turns to Val and adds, “And don’t go easy on this one. I was watching you from inside the office. You have combat-built arms, Lieutenant Rivera-- use them.”
Nate’s eyes land on the wall of one way glass directly next to the door that the General emerged from. He’d always had mixed feelings about the office; knowing that someone could be watching him forces him to keep his guard up during training, for better or worse.
Val slings her backpack over her shoulder and gives her superior a gracious, respectful nod. “Have a good night, General.”
“You as well, Valerie.”
Once the rest of his team is almost out of earshot, General Morales nods at the office door. “Stay for just a few minutes, son,” she says to Nate. “I’ve got something I want to tell you about.”
Her tone is far from upset, so he’s confident that he’s not in trouble, but any one-on-one conversation with General Morales makes his heart jump. After being in the training facility for so long, the change in acoustics makes his ears pop. He sits down in one of the rolling chairs and tries to keep his hands still and his eyes on the General.
“We’ve got a few cadets coming in tomorrow morning,” she says. “And the four of you have been tasked with training them.”
He nods. “That’s correct. Six of them, right?”
“Seven, actually. We’ve had a last minute addition. She cut it pretty close to the deadline with her decision, and we were pretty shocked that she decided to come to the United States and become an agent, honestly. You might be familiar with her-- Adya Milana Prisham.”
If your life had anything to do with science and cybernetics, it was hard not to know her name. Back when the news first broke, the headlines ranged from objective observations to tone-deaf, insulting statements. First Successful Mind Transfer Procedure Completed On Young Girl In Kolkata. Indian Woman Receives Successful Whole Brain Emulation (WBE) Procedure. Believe it or Not, the World’s First Robot-Human is A 17-Year-Old Who Stepped On a Live Landmine. She was a normal teenager, a nobody, turned quasi-celebrity almost overnight-- all because of a freak accident. At just under nineteen years old, she was a household name for many. No matter what the tabloids said, there was one unifying truth: she was the first human conscience in a fully functioning, synthetic body. Her procedure changed bionics forever.
And soon, she’d be in Goddard’s care.
Nate can hardly find a question adequate enough. She almost died once. Why would she want to do it for a living? Why not just go back to her old life? Why travel so far from home?
Amid his thoughts, all he can mutter is a curious, “Why?”
“A fresh start, I assume. She’s spent the last two years relearning how to walk, talk, write, everything. She’s had to relearn how to be human. But if you spend your whole life just being, you’ll be awfully unfulfilled by the end of it. Goddard is one of only three organizations that her team trusts enough to hand their guardianship over to. It was also her first choice.”
Nate anticipates that this news will break very dramatically for the rest of his team, which might not be too polite for their new cadet. “Do you want me to go get the others? They’re probably getting in their cars right now, it’s not too late--”
General Morales rests a gentle hand on his shoulder and he sits back down. “They’ll find out, but it’s less of a concern to them. There’s a reason I’m speaking to you and not Agents Rivera, Kauri, or Murphy right now. I want you to train her.”
He drops his shoulders. Almost four years ago, He picked up his life and came to LA, hoping to start over and leave his demons over two thousand miles across the country. Addiction and aggression had him grasping at straws to keep going, but Goddard runs a rehabilitation program twice a year and they welcomed him with open arms. What was once a young, penniless man became a strong-willed agent of the people who was determined never to be selfish again.
He takes it all in-- his thoughts, his questions, General Morales’s answers-- and lets out a steady sigh. “I’m extremely honored, General. But I think I’m underqualified for this job. I’d be more than willing to train her as a team effort, but I think if I were to take authority with this, I’d… mess it up.”
She chuckles and leans against the desk, crossing her arms. Some of her black hair, peppered with graying strands, lines her cheek as it slips out from her bun. “It’s not like I’m promoting you to lieutenant, here. You can have as much help from your team as you’d like. But I’ve seen you in your element, both as a young man and as an agent in the middle of a firefight. I think you’re the best person to show her how we do things here.”
The first sentence sort of sounds like backhanded reassurance, but it’s reassuring nonetheless. Being promoted is also a responsibility he’s still not prepared for. That list seems to get longer all the time in Nate’s mind. He was a charity case all those years ago, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time-- or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.
But so was Adya Prisham.
“You’re only as much as you want yourself to be, Nate,” the General adds.
I’m not sure what I want myself to be yet, he thinks. But General Morales has never been a poor judge of character. Whatever she saw in him when he was a washed-up 20-year-old graduating from the rehab program, she sees in him now. That has to count for something.
“Okay,” he says, solidifying his decision with a firm nod and a deep breath. “I’m warning you, though, I might make mistakes at first.”
She can’t help but give her subordinate a warm smile. Beyond the solemn exterior of a general with decades of combat experience lies the heart of a mother. A nurturer. She clasps her hand around his forearm.
“I’m counting on it. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Agent Anastasio. Go home and get plenty of rest.”
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